The Stewardship Tightrope

Slack line in the nature.Merriam-Webster defines stewardship as “the activity or job of protecting and being responsible for something.” As a leader in a nonprofit organization, I believe I am charged with being a good steward for my agency — a caretaker whose job it is to leave my organization better than I found it.

As easy as it is to buy in to that conceptually, things get a little murky once you get past the concept stage. For example, what is the relationship between stewardship and risk? While the concept of “protecting” seems to pull you toward a conservative approach, “leaving an organization better than you found it” may involve stretching and growing in new, untried, directions. In the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) the servant who buried his money to keep it safe was punished, and the one who traded his talents and doubled their worth was rewarded. Hmmm . . . this stewardship thing appears to be a bit of a tightrope.

Is a leader who takes a risk on a new program, investing scarce agency resources in something he or she believes (but can’t guarantee) will give the organization the best chance of long-term success, a better steward than someone who waits until the path is more certain, even knowing that doing such will likely lessen the gains?

It’s much easier to identify a good steward in hindsight — when we can tell whose strategy was more successful in a given situation. Unfortunately, we don’t get to make our decisions in hindsight. We have to choose where we are going to place our foot each step along the thin wavering wire if we hope to make it to the other side. Some of us are lucky enough to have a safety net (endowment anyone?), others may use a balancing bar, and some rely solely on their experience and ability to shift their weight to traverse the expanse.

As if trying to balance stewardship and risk weren’t enough, for me, faith is also inextricably woven along and throughout the tightrope. There are times when forging a path where you feel you are being led involves a good deal of risk, and there may be few guarantees beyond the insistent nudging to move in a particular direction. How do you sell that inner conviction of God’s guidance to a Board, or staff, or community members, when logic might move them in another direction? Does that make you a good steward, strategic, or foolhardy?

Nope, you’re not going to find this one tied up with a nice little bow at the end. I think we have to be satisfied with the notion that stewardship is not supposed to be easy, and it’s not supposed to be about us as leaders. It’s about the organization, and our willingness to cut through the fog and uncertainty and twists and turns of the journey. Will we stub our toe, and occasionally slip and fall? It seems highly likely.

While I’ve never walked a tightrope, I have heard that the key is to keep your focus on where you’re going . . . the solid place to stand on the other side of the ravine. Maybe stewardship is the same way. Maybe it’s about keeping your eyes set on the solid spot on the other side of the current challenge and stepping out with confidence that your organization has what it takes to succeed in the journey.

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